First Watch is the largest and fastest-growing daytime-only restaurant concept with more than 100 restaurants in 15 states. The award-winning company is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. We caught up with Ken Pendery, CEO of First Watch Restaurants, to talk about the company’s recent growth and future expansion plans.
Q: First Watch has grown tremendously over the past several years, opening its 100th restaurant this past October. After 30 years, what is First Watch’s secret to success?
There is no secret, really. We’re no different than any other successful restaurant company – we want to deliver the best food and service possible. We just happen to do it for two specific day parts, from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day. We work hard to make sure our brand remains relevant and that it resonates with consumers. We are also very fortunate to be well positioned to benefit from a couple of high-profile trends that we believe are long-term shifts in consumer behavior – a focus on healthier eating and the growth of the breakfast day part. Both of these trends serve us well for several reasons. First, our menu features options for those that are more health conscious. And yes, they actually sell! In addition, all of our items are fresh and made to order. You won’t find any heat lamps or deep fryers in our restaurants. Second, and this really speaks to the success of our brand, we are leaders in the breakfast, brunch and lunch day parts. We have been named “Best Breakfast” or “Best Brunch” in every market in which we operate within one year of opening. And that is with minimal advertising or paid promotions. We build our business and our reputation one customer at a time. That’s how we’ve done it for 30 years.
Q: What sets First Watch apart?
Definitely our “You First” philosophy. We’ll do whatever it takes to exceed our guests’ expectations and keep them coming back for more. It may sound cliché, but we really believe in this and encourage our employees to as well. We make customer-centric decisions and encourage our employees to do whatever it takes to ensure a customer leaves happy. That includes the ability and authority for a server to send an order back if it doesn’t look right or to take care of a guests’ meal without a manager’s approval, if that’s what it takes. Managers even have the ability to stock special products like jam or syrup based on guest requests, even if it isn’t available in other restaurants.
Q: How has the concept grown over the years?
We opened the first restaurant 30 years ago in Pacific Grove, Calif., and in 1986 moved our offices to Sarasota, Fla. Since then, we have grown to more than 100 restaurants in 15 states, with franchised restaurants in Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wisconsin, and licensed restaurants in Arizona. We recently announced a new franchise agreement in Knoxville, Tenn., to open eight restaurants in Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky, and we’re actively seeking new partners in markets where we have no presence.
We also recently completed our first corporate acquisition in 30 years, which helped us enter the Atlanta market with two restaurants – in Johns Creek and Vinings-Smyrna. Acquisition continues to be a consideration in our growth plan, and we are evaluating opportunities as we speak.
Q: How does the recent growth impact your fresh approach to breakfast, brunch and lunch?
It doesn’t really. We don’t consider ourselves a chain as much as a network of neighborhood restaurants. Our largest competitor is not a chain – it is the local, chef-driven or mom-and-pop restaurant in each market where we operate. So, that pushes us to regularly assess our offering and ensure that we are constantly improving and delivering an experience that is “significantly distinguishable.” While we continue to grow, we aren’t losing sight of our emphasis on what is important to the customer and what sets us apart. Rather than systematizing or outsourcing processes because of our increased scale, we take a “good for one, good for all” approach. If it’s successful in one restaurant, we can replicate that success and see the same results in 100, 200 or 500 restaurants. Sometimes that is harder, or maybe a little more expensive, but consumers recognize the extra effort and ultimately reward you for it. For example, we roast all of our fresh vegetables in house in each restaurant. We make our own French toast batter from scratch. Our granola and muesli cereal is made right in the restaurants. Taking this a step further, over the past year, we’ve been fine tuning our program to utilize locally sourced produce. Our menu items will contain fresh, in-season produce from local farms whenever and wherever possible. So like I said, our recent growth doesn’t impact our fresh approach – it just makes us better.
Q: We’ve heard you use the term Café Casual before. Can you tell us what this is?
Sure. It’s simple really. We believe we are in a class unto ourselves, leading the charge in establishing a new category that we have dubbed Café Casual. It blends the speed and food quality of the best fast-casual concepts with the uniqueness and romance of “local finds.” And that’s all while delivering the benefits of a full-service restaurant.
Q: It sounds like First Watch may have a lot on the horizon. Can you tell us a little about what’s to come?
We do have some milestones coming up with plans to grow to 300 restaurants by 2017. We will continue to open company-owned restaurants while also partnering with quality franchise groups to help us expand the brand. In 2013 alone, we anticipate opening approximately 20 new restaurants. We believe we offer a compelling business model and an opportunity for franchise partners to grow with us and alongside us. What we hear from our franchisees is that it speaks volumes that we have the same goals and are aligned to grow First Watch successfully – together.
For First Watch franchise information, visit http://www.firstwatch.com/franchise-overview.htm.